Smartphones have been through a revolution in recent years and Palm, which was once a leading light, has suffered serious setbacks. The company now languishes way behind the leaders in terms of market share. But don’t think that this is because its smartphones are poor. Hewlett Packard recently bought Palm for its super WebOS operating system and the Palm Pre 2 runs a revamped version of that operating system. Is it enough to keep Palm in the smartphone race?

What is it and who is it for?

The Palm Pre 2 (£319 ex. VAT, SIM-free) is designed for those who want a sleek and small smartphone and also need a miniature keyboard for data entry. Those whose smartphone requirements include a fair amount of text input such as business people using mobile e-mail or relying on SMS are a key target.

The tweaked WebOS platform makes it easy to get around the handset. Arguably, the user interface is a lot cleaner and less ‘geeky’ to use than those of other smartphones, making it appropriate for people who have multiple uses for their smartphone but don’t care too much for complex menus, multiple home screens and convoluted links to applications.

Does it do it well?

The base specifications are as you would expect for a smartphone with a 1GHz processor, Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g), Bluetooth, HSDPA and GPS all present. You can use the Wi-Fi as a router for up to five devices. There is a 5-Megapixel camera too. WebOS has always been an attractive operating system and the upgrade to WebOS 2.0 improves it.

The operating system relies on several unconventional but easy to grasp ideas that really do make a difference to speed and ease of use. The screen is touch sensitive and most unusually touch responsiveness extends outside its boundary into the area beneath it which is called the Gesture Area.

Usually you find buttons in this area, but the Palm Pre 2 takes a different approach. There is a white strip of light which appears when the Gesture Area is in use, but it has no actions associated with it. You sweep to, from and within the Gesture Area to initiate actions.

For example, sweep upwards onto the screen from the Gesture Area and the applications menu appears, sweep left on it to go up a level in an application.
WebOS uses a system of ‘cards’ to represent opened but minimised applications, and you move through these by sweeping left and right tapping to open them full screen. The operating system truly multitasks, so that applications remain in the state you last left them as you move between them.

New to WebOS 2.0 is the concept of ‘stacks’, the ability to group cards as if they were a deck of playing cards in your hand. Apps are grouped automatically according to the data they are using. For example, open a contact, and then e-mail them and both the contact and e-mail apps are grouped as a ‘stack’. You can close apps by sweeping upwards off the screen area.

If all this sounds complex in the telling, it is extremely intuitive to use and feels straightforward and simple. One other new feature for WebOS 2.0 which will make technophobes happy is called ‘Just Type’. Instead of having to find an application and run it to start a task you just use a universal search tool that sits on the single home screen and begin entering text. The Pre 2 works out which apps the text might be relevant to, offering you a list. When you see what you want, you tap it. Like other aspects of the operating system this is open to developers, so third-party applications can become part of the whittled down list.

WebOS 2.0 feels like a real ‘back to the drawing board’ operating system. By which we mean Palm has asked what people do with their smartphones and then worked to make these actions as easy as possible. Even the social networking integration has added appeal for business users, as it caters for LinkedIn as well as the more usual Facebook and Twitter. One more plus point for some users is that if you are a fan of Palm’s wireless Touchstone charging system, the Pre 2 is compatible out of the box. Previously you had to purchase a replacement backplate to use Touchstone.

Where does it disappoint?

While the WebOS operating system delights us, the physical design of the Palm Pre 2 is a little disappointing. We do really like the unadorned black front fascia, and the slider design which keeps the keyboard out of view until needed helps keep the footprint small.

However, the keyboard itself is a little cramped. Even our small hands found it tricky to get faster than about 75% of our fastest typing speed. We aren’t fans of the rubbery finish to the keys either—we prefer a harder plastic finish.

The back of the handset is bowed so that it doesn’t sit flat on a table and wobbles around annoyingly when tapped. The effect is minimal when the keyboard is hidden but very noticeable when the keyboard is visible. The screen is a bit small at 3.1 inches and low resolution at 320 x 480 pixels. We’d have liked more on both counts.

There is 16GB of onboard memory which should provide most users with plenty of storage space. However, there is no facility for expanding this with microSD cards, and that’s something very few smartphones decline to offer. It is standard for Windows Phone 7 smartphones, but rare outside that. Battery life could be better. Palm quotes 5 hours of talktime and we found our medium-to-heavy usage regime meant a mid-afternoon power boost was often needed.

Would we recommend it?

We have a huge soft spot for the Palm Pre 2. Web OS is intuitive to use and great for those who find the overabundance of home screens and links on many smartphones get in the way of effective use. The small size is also appealing, though there are trade-offs as far as screen and keyboard size are concerned. The latter in particular may be an issue if you have large hands. Business users may like the way the Palm Pre 2 handles LinkedIn too. But the iffy battery life could be an issue. [7]